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gender and clothing

May 13, 2012

I went looking for clothes last week, and the process was unsettling. Stores that cater to women often have bright colors (which I like), as well as a lot of black, pastels, and sherbet or neon brights (which I don’t like). The Mid-Atlantic region, or maybe it’s just Maryland, spills over with diminutive women just under or at 5 feet, so sections of petite clothes are often larger and more interesting than the ‘regular’ sections. Because I’m 6 feet tall, even ‘regular’ sized tops will be short-waisted on me; pants will always be way too short; skirts will hit at strange places on my leg. And in a store that caters to women, like the Talbot’s I tried 3 days ago, I will look completely out of place as I loom over most of the customers.

I did find an intriguingly-patterned tank top, but even the largest size that made sense (12) was constricting, so that it was hard to move around at all in it. The boxy shape managed to be unflattering in at least 3 places: it wasn’t long enough; it narrowed all around the waist, which is my widest point; and I looked squat in all directions. ‘Frumpy’ was the most neutral word I could find to describe my appearance in it.

The women’s section at Lands’ End was even worse. I was looking for a sleeveless shell or short sleeve sweater, but it’s the wrong time of year for sleeveless. Of the short-sleeved sweaters they had, there were no colors I was interested in, and they were all sherbet brights. So I looked at T-shirts. No doubt they are flattering to some limited shapes, but they clung to all the wrong places on me. They emphasized how small my chest is, and emphasized even more how much larger in comparison my stomach is. ‘Dumpy’ was the nicest word I thought of. It was dispiriting.

Then I went to the men’s section. Much prettier colors (for my taste), and plaids abounded! I tried on three shirts, and they all looked good. The colors and patterns brightened my face. There was room to move in all directions. Somehow the shape looked better, without seeming boxy. Nothing clung to my stomach. And skimming over my chest is the norm.

I started thinking about gender in clothing in a whole new way. (And I say that as a person who has been mixing and matching clothes designed for two distinct genders since I was a teen.)

Hands down, my favorite short-sleeved tops are all men’s shirts. My tank tops are mixed genders. I tend to like the patterns and proportions of men’s shorts better than women’s shorts, but I tend to buy women’s shorts because they seem more likely to fit my body type (although I’m usually disappointed anyway). No matter what I buy, I can’t help but notice that my body shape doesn’t seem to be the one that the garment was designed to flatter.

Partly for reasons of fit, I would rather wear skirts than pants. If I could find more skirts that fit well and had sufficient pockets, I would almost never wear anything else. But since I’ve never seen skirts in the men’s section of a store or catalog, so far I’ve had to make do with women’s skirts.

I really don’t appreciate looking in the mirror after getting dressed and feeling ugly, mostly because I’m not young anymore, nor am I trying to look like I’m young. Around here, I see older women trying to still be sexy (often in a young-looking way), or looking frumpy — I rarely see anyone in-between, nor anyone trying something entirely different. Men are all over the map, but they rarely seem to be trying to be sexy. Then again, sexy for them means something different — they already have much more real power in other ways. Sexy is just enjoyable, but if you don’t have it, no one thinks you’re worthless.


Fairly regularly, I get mistaken for being a man, even though I’m not trying to pass as one. I have developed all sorts of theories about why this keeps happening. I’m tall. I have a long stride and I take up space unapologetically. I’ve made no attempt to disguise the grey in my hair; I wear it short, in a spiky style. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t shave my legs. When I wear jewelry, it’s rarely something that only a woman would wear.

And yet… I wear skirts a lot. I have occasionally seen men wearing skirts, but they are always short skirts. I wear skirts in all sorts of lengths, including long. I wear colorful and/or patterned socks. I wear colorful shoes.

Someone might see me wearing a man’s shirt, and jeans, but also wearing pink-and-green plaid shoes, with a pink plaid backpack. I have a pair of slip-on shoes that I hand-dyed in shades of green. I have a pair of Camper shoes in orange leather whose pattern coordinates, but does not match.

While I was at Lands’ End, the elderly male clerk remarked on the shirt I was wearing, saying it was much more ‘wildly patterned’ than anything they were selling. It’s actually a man’s shirt. It’s very colorful certainly, a large-scale paisley-ish pattern, over a small-scale block print. Main colors are purples, pink, red, teal, green, with a smattering of yellow, orange, and metallic gold on white. I feel happy whenever I look at this shirt because it expresses my taste in a gloriously loopy way. It is the oldest piece of clothing I still wear — I bought it in 1987. At the time I found it, I also really liked a similar shirt whose main color was red, but I couldn’t afford to buy both. I think purple was the bolder choice, and therefore the right one.


I want clothing that celebrates who I am. That allows me to mix patterns and colors however the spirit moves me.

I think the next level is clothing that can actually be worn differently, that is, configured differently. Clothing that can be worn by any gender would also be good. Clothing that adapts to me/you, not expects me/you to adapt to it.

I am helped in that aim by not having ever constructed a garment from a pattern. I’ve tried, but I can’t get the hang of it. I’ve read books on patterning, and garment construction. I’ve had sewing lessons. I think it’s like weaving all over again in that what draws me to want to work within this medium, and what draws other people, do not overlap almost at all. Not only that, but from reading books and talking to my sewing teachers, their minds work in a way that my mind doesn’t. Like most weavers, they expect to and want to know pretty much how something’s going to turn out before they start working on it. In contrast, I usually only have the vaguest idea before I start. (Sometimes I have a more well-developed idea, but upon working with my material, everything has to adapt or change drastically fairly soon.) I like not knowing how something will develop. That uncertainty — that openness to serendipity and inspiration and collaboration with the material — is my favorite part of the process. That’s my creativity.

So it seems like most things I make would be one-of-a-kind. I might be able to do a series, since I do enjoy ‘variations on a theme’. Just not so many that anything feels routine, or predictable.

[Edited 5.15.12 to add last sentence, when I noticed it somehow got left out.]

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sixwing permalink
    May 14, 2012 14:34

    I want clothing that celebrates who I am. That allows me to mix patterns and colors however the spirit moves me.

    What a delightful goal. (Also, me too! Though it sounds like we have very different taste; I like dark shades, jewel tones of red and green and blue, browns and blacks and greys.. also, my creativity process differs vastly from yours in that I design something to small details, then make it, and remake it as many times as I have to.)

    Clothing that can be configured differently could be a really fun challenge to make. Thinky thoughts!

    • May 14, 2012 16:09

      Your comment got me thinking in an unexpected direction too! Because my different personalities like different color palettes. What if I put together groupings of those color palettes, maybe tried to make a collage or small-scale quilt out of them? That could be pretty cool…

      • Sixwing permalink
        May 15, 2012 11:31

        Ooh, that would be awesome! 😀

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